Diversification and Classification of Chinese Higher Education: An Exploration of State, Market, and Institutional Forces


Funding Program:

SSHRC Insight Grant

Funding Amount:


Differentiation and diversity have become important policy issues in re/structuring contemporary higher education systems. Arguably, diversity is the product of public policy applied to the nexus of teaching, learning and research. On a deeper level, diversity implies a conscious set of social, political and academic values and beliefs, including social inclusion, elitism or anti-elitism, responsiveness to new constituencies, greater student choices, transformative learning, and academic oligarchy: what we might think of as an ideological or a cultural view of diversity.

Chinese higher education has experienced an unprecedented expansion since the late 1990s. The expansion has primarily been driven by government policy and has had a tremendous impact on differentiation and diversity of the Chinese higher education system. At the same time, the Chinese government has launched a number of national elite university initiatives, concentrating public resources in a relatively small number of selected universities in order to expand and heighten their research capacities in a short timeline. This has, in turn, triggered worldwide campaigns for world-class universities.

Research now stands out as a key determinant of academic reputation, financial status, and international orientation. This vertical diversification is further complicated by the emergence and growth of such institutional fabrics as higher vocational colleges, private institutions, transnational higher education entities, and more recently universities of applied sciences. Against such backdrop, this study investigates:

  • What distinctive features characterize diversification following China's massification of higher education since the late 1990s?
  • What impact is rendered upon structural diversity and classification of Chinese higher education system?
  • How does the Chinese experience of differentiation and diversification compare with patterns identified elsewhere?

This study draws on organizational analysis and cultural studies of higher education institutions and disciplines. Analysing diversity and classification of Chinese higher education system using these theoretical frameworks will creates a more sophisticated account of the different varieties of academic enterprises and their associated values of teaching, research and service. Regarding differentiation and diversification in higher education, the articulation between structures and cultures promises the potential of enhancing our understanding not only of how a given system functions but also of how far a particular policy initiative is effectively implemented within the system.

This study comprises three phases over a 3-year period. Phase I centres on an empirical investigation of diversification of Chinese higher education at system level, with data collected from publicly available sources such as statistics yearbooks/bulletins and government policy documents as well as interviews with policy makers at Chinese education authorities. Phase II involves the development of 15 case studies: 3 national elite universities, 3 local (provincial) universities, 3 colleges, 3 private institutions, and 3 transnational higher education entities, through interviews with subjects from relevant constituencies on those campuses. Such case studies are supplementary to the empirical investigation at system level. Phase III focuses on knowledge mobilization / dissemination through publications in scholarly journals and presentations at academic conferences, as well as workshops with Canadian university leaders and policy makers who should be informed of higher education diversity and classification in China, which is now Canada's single largest source of international students and a major origin of skilled immigrants.